Pittsburgh Ballet's costumier keeps 'The Nutcracker' on pointe
With a large cast in colorful costumes and carried by tuneful and brilliant music, “The Nutcracker” ballet is a perfect holiday entertainment — set at a family celebration on Christmas Eve and centered on the dreams of a girl on the cusp of becoming a woman.
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre begins its run of “The Nutcracker” on Dec. 6, and the company's costumier Janet Groom Campbell and her staff have been busy preparing some of the 210 costumes needed for the production.
This version of the classic Russian ballet by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky was created in 2002 by Pittsburgh Ballet artistic director Terence Orr, who set the action in Pittsburgh.
A replica of the old Kaufman's clock is at the top of the Benedum Center's proscenium. The first act opens in front of a big family house in Shadyside, with most of the act taking place during a Christmas Eve party in the living room. Daughter Marie has a fantastic night in the ballet, during which her Nephew is transformed into the Nutcracker and defends her. When he re-emerges as himself, Marie and the Nephew become a couple who pass by a scene of Mt. Washington on the way to the Land of Enchantment.
“I spent probably about three years doing research, studying the libretto, and meeting with different people, such as magicians, because I wanted to have magic in the production,” Orr says.
He met five times initially with costume designer Zach Brown to go through ideas for the costumes needed for the production.
“What kind of Divertissements do we want? How many clowns do we need? What kind of people are coming to the party? We wanted to set it in Pittsburgh to make it interesting,” he says. “We wanted to take it back in time, but also to have a fresh look.”
Most of the costumes were made in-house by Campbell and her staff, including dozens for the Waltz of the Flowers, and the Waltz of the Snowflakes. Some had to be sent out. The ballet doesn't have the sewing machines for certain material, such as for the rats' costumes. Nor does it have a shop to create the Nutcracker's headpiece.
The ballet uses about 50 yards of fabric in seasons that don't include a new production, according to Campbell, who is in her 40th season with the ballet. In 2002, she used about 2,000 yards of fabric to create Orr's “The Nutcracker” costumes.
The fabric is dyed in-house in a steel-jacketed tureen, equipment that is used in the food industry for making large batches of soup or for boiling bagel dough before it is baked.
The company hired a dozen stitchers in 2002 for Orr's new version of “The Nutcracker.” The show requires 210 costumes for 28 company members, plus graduate students and 68 children. Each production is usually double cast, and with two dozen performances, the costumes have to be versatile and durable.
Campbell just laughs when asked how many hours a week she works.
“You have to get your job done even if you have to take it with you. My husband loves to travel, and is very relieved when I don't take a sewing machine along on trips. I did Tinker Bell for ‘Peter Pan' in Munich; I did a McTavish for ‘Nutcracker' in Bermuda, ‘Swan Lake' tutus in Bedford Springs and ‘Sleeping Beauty' tutus in South Carolina.”
When Campbell is in doubt about a repair or making a new costumes, she consults a reference book containing renderings of each costume. It contains fabric swatches, where the fabric was purchased and a dye sample if it has colors, and shows the costume with all its accessories.
Costume fittings for the children performing in “The Nutcracker” are a lot of fun, according to Campbell, “because the kids are so excited to try on their costumes. We help them into them and tell them to run and look at themselves in the mirror. Many get so excited, they start to do their whole role, and we have to tell them to come back because we're not done with the fitting.”
During the run of performances, there are seven or eight repairs needed every day. Sometimes, it's a loose button or snap, or a seam pops. Sometimes, it's an adjustment of elastic. They're done right in the Benedum by wardrobe supervisor Kathy Sullivan, who leads the five dressers.
Campbell was born in Coraopolis, where she lived most of her life until moving to Moon six years ago. While studying at the Fashion Academy of Pittsburgh, she began making costumes for the school's receptionist, who was an actress. Soon, she began stitching at Pittsburgh Playhouse.
Campbell was hired by Pittsburgh Ballet in July 1973 by its founding artistic director Nicolas Petrov. At the time, there were three resident designers, two stitchers and costume assistants.
Maintaining the costumes for “The Nutcracker” is a year-round task.
“It takes about two weeks after the last performance to wash the ones we wash and dry clean the ones we don't. Then, whenever we have time, we always pull out Nutcracker costumes to freshen them up. We check and repair hooks and eyes, snaps, zippers — all that good stuff.”
Some work is more involved. Campbell made a new embroidered motif on the trim of pants for the Arabian Dance this season after the older ones became too frayed to be salvaged. She had the trim design digitized, then used a big embroidery machine she has at home.
“Janet did a great job. It's nice to have someone here to show me on a daily basis. I wish I had hands on with other parts of the production,” Orr says. “She's a huge advantage, especially with ‘The Nutcracker.' We do 24 performances of it a year. That alone takes its wear and tear, even more when the same costume is worn by persons of different size.”
Gabrielle Thurlow is one of many chameleons in the ballet's run of Nutcrackers, which uses rotating casting. She first danced in the ballet when she was a Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School graduate student. This season, at different performances she will perform Marie, Sugar Plum Fairy, shepherdess, Snow Queen, Snow Flakes, as Arabian, Chinese and Spanish dancers and several parts in the Act 1 party.
“Probably the most would be three costumes changes in a performance,” Thurlow says. “You just kind of slip them on. In the back, there are hooks and eyes, different sets of eyes, so it's very easy to put them into the right size for different people (who will play the role). Tighter or looser depends on the dancer. Some like it looser to breathe, others just want it to feel more like a leotard.”
Mark Kanny is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
One big costume
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre costumier Janet Campbell made nearly all the costumes that will be worn by Christopher Budzynski, who plays the Nephew, but not the large head piece worn by the Nutcracker with his military-style uniform. It was made and is maintained by Svi Roussanoff.
“It's difficult to dance with,” Budzynski admits, saying the head piece affects both balance and vision.
“When you first put it on your head, you can't see what is going on. Even when it is secured, your vision is restricted. Especially with all the little kids (in the ballet), because their heads are at a very low level,” he says.
The ballet has an improved headpiece with an internal mechanism that adjusts to the width of the dancer's head. But there's always a risk that when a huge cloth is pulled off to reveal the Nutcracker that it will catch on the headpiece.